And I Want a Sixth, Or a Toss-up: On Meeting Lupe Fiasco
So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. — Frederick Douglass
Explicit language is a privilege. To be explicit — is a privilege. Linearity, in fact, is a form of extreme privilege. I am not talking about story-telling which I love — but rather, the security with which a person — a writer — might secrete — the story — or compound it — in a space neither image. — Bhanu Kapil
I met Lupe Fiasco last night at an ice cream parlor in Los Angeles. My boyfriend and I were sharing a banana split and I could not concentrate on its sugar rush. The fact that we had quietly waited close to thirty minutes in line drowning in white families’ latest struggles – “Should I get a brownie or a white chocolate chip walnut cookie?” and “Should I get a thai tea or lavender ice cream sandwich?” – no longer wore heavily on us like a North Face jacket in Los Angeles winter. The ice cream parlor was immaculately silver and white. Though its air was filled with customers’ small talk in the form of choices and decisions, it seemed it didn’t even matter that minutes before seeing Lupe in person, I had asked my good conversationalist of a boyfriend about his silence, to which he replied with his pointer figure gesticulating a circle, implying but not outright saying, “All this white privilege up in here.”
I understood instantly. I was thinking the same thing but had to ask just to be sure. My boyfriend is often a Filipino American man in classrooms of whiteness; he is a teacher in an overwhelmingly white profession where he has to be extra careful with his students; he is often model-minoritized when he does well and he is rendered ignorable when he struggles. He once told me about how one of his colleagues had disavowed his stories of struggle in college with a question (that wasn’t really a question) that must have been something like, “We can’t all have it easy in school, huh?”
We had already ordered when my boyfriend came back to a table I was holding and nonchalantly stated, “Hey. Lupe Fiasco is here,” to which I befuddled an overwhelming yet ineffable response. “What do you mean? No way! What should we do?” were the only questions I could muster.
I quickly tightened my grasp on the handles of my canvas bag that reads “I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie” which I was too embarrassed and too happy to be wearing out like this.
“I’m gonna go talk to him,” I said seriously yet casually, as I would if I were his tenant late on rent and he was my kind and understanding landlord. I looked at the man that was supposed to be Lupe Fiasco. Black jacket, black shoes, black pants, black glasses frames, dreadlocks, all black everything. It had to be him, right?
“Wait a second, that’s not him,” I argued. But then again, it wasn’t like I had just seen him the other day or could ever know what celebrities really looked like in person. I hated that about this world. I hated the way we make each other, our thoughts, our art, ourselves, so untouchable. So invisible even if we shared the same air.
I’ve told students in my classes that Lupe Fiasco is one of my favorite artists and thinkers of all time, across genre, period. Somewhere online, someone called him one of the foremost artists who discusses and explains psychological oppression like no other. For a critical gender project, a group of students discussed the layered argument around his song, “Bitch Bad.” They rehashed the ways in which sexism works actively, the way it is learned. Also, I told the high school students I worked with as an after-school Language Arts and French tutor in East Palo Alto that I couldn’t wait until L.A.S.E.R.S. came out. And on the day that it did, I got my paycheck at that tutoring gig, and hauled ass to the local Best Buy to buy it before closing. These lines from “The Show Goes On” made me want to buy the whole CD – blind, 1990s style:
Five in the air for the teachers not scared
To tell those kids that’s livin’ in the ghetto
That the niggas holdin’ back that the world is theirs
Yeah, the world is yours
I was once that little boy
Terrified of the world
Now I’m on a world tour
“Paul!” one of the workers called out my boyfriend’s order. Paul is the name he takes on because he’s found that people, even his own family members, find the spelling and pronunciation of his real name, Paolo, difficult to get right. I looked at this man waiting, the man I no longer believed was Lupe Fiasco.
“Tell him you work in a hip hop learning community. Tell him you’ve taught some of his work. Tell him, ‘thank you,’” Paolo encouraged. I looked at the man’s nice, probably designer black jacket and at his shoes. Black Air Jordans. Dreadlocks. All black everything. It had to be him. I had accidentally met Donald Glover/Childish Gambino at an In-N-Out almost two years ago and it was his Ferragamo-quality boat shoes in a Los Angeles winter that gave him away.
I thought it was Lupe at that moment because his lyrics to “Kick, Push” come back to me now, much speedier than when his entire discography and impact on my life escaped my mind there in the ice cream parlor.
Yeah, uh, a fresh cool young Lu
Trying to catch this microphone, check 2, 1, 2
Want to believe my own hype but it’s too untrue
The world brought me to my knees
What have you brung you?
I am a young, Pinay adjunct instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. I teach English and Writing. I teach in CIPHER (Center for Innovative Practices through Hip Hop Education and Research), the only hip hop learning community in a community college west of the Mississippi. I just have this feeling, this intuitive feeling, that what we are doing in this learning community is revolutionary, humanizing, and setting a precedent that the hip hop and education gods would be proud of. In our classrooms, our students attend workshops hosted by hip hop educators who are also vetted rappers, photographers, graffiti artists, DJs, and dancers. Our students create and perform their own poetry and music. They host and feature at hip hop events including conferences and open mics on campus and in the community. They interrupt and disrupt normative notions of education. As educators, we talk to our students. We listen to and read their narratives. We include them in our plans, and in fact, my plans for my classroom would not work without the thoughts, words, and presence of my students. We create room for what is relevant in their lives. We threw away the lesson plans when The Jacka passed away, we made room to talk when Aaliyah’s death anniversary came, and we dedicated the first day of school in our learning community to youth of color, like Mike Brown, who will no longer get first days of school. We mess up, we fail, and we try. Hella hard. We work it out. My work is their learning.
“Lu!” another worker brought out two coffees and it was confirmed. It was him. He was human and real. He wasn’t fresh off of the magazine photo shoots he hates, not cold like he was in some filmed radio interviews where he clearly wasn’t feeling the scene. He looked like subversion personified, like he was upsetting and switching up things just by being a celebrity in a common but hella hipster space. In “All Black Everything,”
You would never know
If you could ever be
If you never try
You would never see
Stayed in Africa
We ain’t never leave
So there were no slaves in our history
Were no slave ships, were no misery, call me crazy, or isn’t he
See I fell asleep and I had a dream, it was all black everything
I should have told him that in mid-September and in early October of this past year, Pinay poet Barbara Jane Reyes continued a movement calling for the visibility, recognition, and presence of Pinay literature through the creation and use of the hashtag #AllPinayEverything for Filipina/o American History Month (which is October, ya bastards). Frustrated with and questioning the overwhelming presence of male writers almost taking precedence over established and emerging Pinay writers and artists, I joined the conversation.
Reyes asks, “How not to assume? How to respect where others are at in their own liberation. What if others do not appear to prioritize their own liberation? And who am I — what gives any of us the right — to judge this? So then, how not to judge others, and how to call out others for their tendency or need to level judgment upon others? How to eliminate dismissiveness and condescension from this picture?”
I’m obsessed with the word ‘impossible’ and I often test myself to think through its dimensions. What if we imagined a world with positive impossibility? That is, what if we act/acted, have/had, think/thought in ways that no longer limit us? What if, when we say something is impossible, we don’t mean something cannot ever happen, but that it is beyond what we perceived could happen, if we willed and wished it into possibility?
I should have told him that L.A.S.E.R.S. came at a time when I didn’t trust myself or this world for my being politically-minded; hearing his songs were validation. I should have told him that I think him brave, intellectual, and powerful. I wanted to tell him that I been listening, and that I will continue listen. That I once read in an article how he wanted to write a novel, and that I propose to him a hip hop writers group–that being in a workshop with him and Frank Ocean is a writer fantasy I return to when I think about my why and why my M.F.A.
I think that was the kind of subversive thinking Lupe employs in his songs. It’s the kind that challenges listeners. Lupe dares us to repeat after him.
No Heaven up above you, no Hell underneath you
And nowhere will receive thee, so
Shed no tear, when we’re not here
And keep your faith, as we chase
Paolo and I went back and forth whispering over our quickly melting banana split like this: “You should say something!” “No, you do it!” “You!” “No, you! Please?” It went forward and backward like that for about fifteen minutes. We had even plotted for one of us to pass right by Lupe and his probable date on the way to the bathroom, pretend to use the bathroom, and walk out to fake a celebrity spotting and freak-out to get the chance to greet him. Upon freak-out, the other was supposed to join the conversation to ease the situation. Of course the meeting did not happen this way.
In 2013, I found myself visiting Portland, Oregon taking advantage of its sales-tax-free statehood. As I was setting up a tablet I’d purchased in an electronics store with an employee, Paolo came over to me, seemingly angry that I’d taken too long, and in a tone that reminded me of a previous bad relationship, asked me to go with him. My apologist questions, “What’s wrong? Are you okay? Do you need something? Are you mad at me?” also crept up on me unrequited.
Mark Jackson. Former Head Coach for the Golden State Warriors, my favorite basketball team. He’d popped into the store to purchase some new earphones with his old ones plugged in his ears with no device attached at the end of its line. “Excuse me, Mr. Jackson, my girlfriend is a big fan of yours and your team and I was hoping you could take a picture with her.” Mr. Jackson nodded and didn’t smile in my photo. I was hella happy – in my Dubs t-shirt and all – giving little to no fucks about Portland, my new tablet, or my boyfriend’s affinity for the Los Angeles Clippers. My place was in the moment.
So they Kick, Push Kick, Push Kick, Push Kick, Push Coast
And the way they roll just lovers intertwined with no place to go
So they Kick, Push Kick, Push Kick, Push Kick, Push Coast
It is clear that he loves me.
“I talked to Mark Jackson first last time. It’s your turn,” Paolo stated. I knew he was right but I didn’t want to look stupid in front of Lupe. We had just come from the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood where we watched Chris Rock’s much-anticipated film Top Five and I was hyper-aware of Rock’s visual commentary on the consumption of the artist by his audience. I also thought and concluded by the end of watching that film: Damn. Celebrities don’t owe us shit.
My top five at the time of this publication: 1990s Mariah Carey, Blue Scholars, Native Guns, Rocky Rivera, and Kendrick Lamar. And I want a sixth, or a toss-up: between Lupe Fiasco and TLC.
The lights were dimming. It was just Paolo and I and Lupe and his date in the ice cream parlor with the young employees cleaning up. None of the white families identified Lu in all of the time that he had been there talking about how record companies and folks weren’t fucking with his music before the album was officially released. (I was eavesdropping.) “Okay, I’m gonna do it,” Paolo braved. He went to throw away the tray of our ice cream before either of us was really done with it.
I was eavesdropping. He started with one of his timely jokes: “Excuse me, Lupe Fiasco? Mr. Lupe? Or Mr. Fiasco? I’m not sure what to call you…” Lupe laughed. His friend laughed, too. I couldn’t believe P took the corny approach: “I just knew that I had to say hello. We–me and my girlfriend over there–we’d be remiss not to talk to you.” (He loved himself for saying remiss in front of Lupe Fiasco.)
I took that as my cue to bring the strong and the feminine to P’s masculine. I was always aware of the ways that dudes run up on other dudes, the potential abrasiveness. I thought I could balance it out, to make the situation seem lighter. I thought that we could discuss topics that would make him remember where he came from. Just like in the song, “Never Forget You”:
Let the record reflect the records we set
Best foot forward with every step
And let’s push towards it, never regress
Instead, I brought the awkward. I didn’t know what to say. I walked over to stand next to P and Lupe Fiasco.
“Hullo,” I said in my best Yogi Bear voice. I shit you not. However one could turn two syllables into three is what I enunciated. It’s the impossible I made possible that day.
I spouted these things off in an order I don’t remember:
“Every year, we host an annual hip hop education conference called Rock The School Bells.”
“My students love you and your music.”
“Here are some stickers for you and your date!”
“Hullo.” Yeah, I did it again.
“We can’t wait for the new album.”
“I’ve taught your music in my class before. Maybe I can do it again for the new one?”
“Cornel West just came through to our campus!”
To which he replied in an order I don’t remember either:
“What school is this, again?”
“There’ll be a lot of things to unpack in this one.”
“Oh, you mean, Pops?! Yeah, I went to his class a couple of times at Princeton.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Wow, Skyline College. It’s a community college?”
And other brief things I can’t remember.
P and I got to tell him that we were both from Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, respectively. After we each got to take a photo with him with one of the workers perfectly photobombing our photos (I wasn’t mad, the photobombs were too good), he told us to have a safe trip back to the Bay. We all walked out together. The workers closed up shop and we parted ways right there on Beverly Boulevard.
Paolo’s top five: Lupe Fiasco, Q-Tip, Nas, Tupac, Prometheus Brown, and . Throw in Kendrick Lamar, for a sixth. It’s the L.A. in him.
After meeting one of my favorite writers, I write. I linger, yes, and reflect, yes, and I also take each meeting as a sign to keep going and to keep pushing. I still wonder if I have a place in hip hop, in love, in history, in writing. If I have a place to wander. Or if I have any place at all. I wondered, did that just really happen? Wasn’t the impossible possible?
We stayed up listening to songs from Tetsuo & Youth on the internet.
I think fans want the same braveness, intellect, and power that their favorite celebrities possess. How come our favorite and lauded celebrities aren’t our favorite humans? I want to venerate and uphold someone who is a good person.
I wanted to tell Lupe: I know your job is not easy. You don’t owe me anything but you give and create your music anyway. I appreciate you. I remember his interview with hiphopdx.com where he stated his frustrations with his record label, Atlantic Records.
“…you always get faced with these, ‘Is it worth it?’ type situations. Some days it is. Some days, it’s not. Tomorrow will be a different day, but yeah, I’m almost done.”
I wanted to tell Lupe that all pinay everything exists like all black everything matters because we see how white everything is.
Lupe points out how this world was not made for us and how it is not structured to meet our future needs. Therefore, I wonder if our future precludes us? I think Lupe says hell yeah, if we drone on. Hell yeah, if we don’t listen. Hell yeah–we’ll have secured preclusion–if we don’t act now.
We have decisions to make; we carve out our choices from circumstance every day. We have first chances, second chances if we are lucky. For some, sixths and sevenths. And if we are ultra critical, demanding, persistent, or a combination of each of these, we get toss-ups.
Lupe pushes his lyricism and re-wires our expectations to transform our intellectual capacities. His music mobilizes our minds and fights industry battles that we can’t see or believe because, well, some folks still can’t see nor believe the shit we see. One of my mentors in grad school wrote a D.I.Y. book-poem telling, “We do not see what we do not see.” And at the same time, I’d like to add: we see what we do not see.
My elision of what I see is two movements of Pinayness and blackness calling for and creating space, not solely in solidarity but definitely in solidarity, in confronting, seeing, and refusing the omnipresence of whiteness.
I don’t seek claim to some kind of authenticity in a world that reinvents what’s ours to make it less ours. That would be appropriation.
Does what’s ours belong to us even after it is shared with the world?
Lupe said he had no plans to watch Chris Rock’s Top Five. Maybe because it was co-produced by Jay Z and Kanye West, with whom he’s had cordial and discrete rapport. If I was brave enough, I would have asked him about that, too.
And there so many things I should have said to him. There are so many songs I wanted to discuss. There are so many people I wanted to tell him about – people and my students who’ve been affected, highly inspired, and more aware of the world and questioning its ways because of his music. Lupe Fiasco is hip hop. He and his music is everything I love, want, and expect from hip hop.
I should have stated, Thank You. For your craft, your forethought, and your lens of perceptive possibility to show us, your fans, your admirers, your critics; that your art is our learning.
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a Pinay poet, writer, and educator born and raised in San José, CA. Her first book microchips for millions will be forthcoming from PAWA, Inc in Fall 2016. She is also the author of the forthcoming chapbook toxic city (tinder tender press, 2015). She earned her M.F.A. in Critical Studies/Writing at CalArts. She co-founded an open mic in Los Angeles called the Sunday Jump. She lives in the Bay Area and teaches at Skyline College and San José City College. Please visit her website: janicewrites.com